David Robertson appeared on the Religious Studies Project this week, interviewing Ann Taves of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She argues that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

Remembering the remarkable life of Sister Nivedita

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

It is singularly appropriate that in 2017, the seventieth year after Indian Independence, English Heritage put up a blue plaque on the house in Wimbledon where Margaret Noble (1867-1911) once lived. 2017 was coincidentally also the 150th anniversary of her birth. Margaret Noble is little remembered in the UK today, but the caption on the plaque, ‘Educationalist and Campaigner for Indian Independence’, hints as to why she is still remembered in India, more commonly as Sister Nivedita (the Dedicated), the name given to her by her guru Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902).

Such was Nivedita’s contribution to Indian national life that an Indian postage stamp was issued to mark the centenary of her birth, and the 150th anniversary of her birth last year was celebrated in India by various public events.

Born in Ireland, Nivedita was educated in Halifax, Yorkshire, and then taught in various schools in England and North Wales, before moving to London where she established her own progressive school. It was in London that she met Vivekananda. Although it might not raise many eye-brows today, it was anything but commonplace in the late nineteenth-century for a British woman to become the initiated disciple of a Hindu guru, especially when this involved abandoning her former life in London to begin anew in Calcutta. Nivedita opened a school for girls in Calcutta and participated in relief work organised by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, the organisation created by Vivekananda in the name of his guru. A tireless networker, Nivedita played a major part in contemporary debates about Indian ‘national art’, collected Hindu and Buddhist stories, and was the first to propose a design for an Indian national flag. After Vivekananda’s death, she became increasingly active in the growing campaign for independence from British rule—including with groups who embraced violent means to secure their political goal. She was, not unsurprisingly, a controversial figure. Her public defence of aspects of popular Hindu practice drew censure from both Indian reformers in India and in her former circle in London. She repeatedly asserted her Christian identity while embracing aspects of Hindu practice and belief, and continued to affirm her loyalty to the British Empire until quite late in life, even as she became increasingly involved in the independence movement. Such evidence of the complexities and contradictions of her transnational life merit closer exploration, but have been largely by-passed by biographers with close links to the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Their accounts, perhaps understandably, focus on her guru’s transformative effect on her life.

Nivedita was not the only British woman of her time who was drawn to the service of India, and particularly of Indian women, at a time when India offered some British women more scope for a public role than they would have then had at home. What is striking about Nivedita is that, although she clearly worked for change in some areas, she did not seek to ‘reform’ India according to Christian or other convictions shaped in Europe. Consistent with her controversial defence of Hindu devotional practice, she identified herself with India, something that her guru deliberately fostered.

Nivedita was an Irishwoman by birth whose life was shaped by her education and career as a teacher in England, yet she gave the latter half of her life to the service of India rather than to the cause of Irish freedom, giving up the school she had established in London and the social standing that brought her. Raised Protestant, she toyed at one time with converting to Roman Catholicism, studied Buddhism, and after a period of religious agnosticism famously became the disciple of a Hindu guru. With her remarkable career in India being recently commemorated, Nivedita’s life reminds us that the blurring of notions of religious and national identity, which we tend to associate with accelerating globalising processes of recent decades, have rather deeper roots and antecedents.

You can read more about Nivedita’s remarkable life in ‘The Making of the Ideal Transnational Disciple: Unravelling Biographies of Margaret Noble/Sister Nivedita’ in Philippe Bornet (ed.), Translocal Lives and Religion: Connections between Asia and Europe in the Late Modern World (Equinox, forthcoming 2019).


RS Options for Arts and Humanities Students

Did you know there are a variety of ways you can take Religious Studies modules as part of an Arts and Humanities qualification at the Open University? In this podcast, Stefanie Sinclair and John Maiden talk you through the different options, and the different Religious Studies modules on offer.

Religious Studies is a great addition to other Arts and Humanities subjects. As John Maiden puts it:

Religions are an important aspect of all human cultures past and present. And Religious Studies is not just about world views or internalised beliefs though we do look at belief very carefully. It’s also about great works of art, popular culture, national and international politics, public and private practices, the kind of everyday doing of religion. So, whether you’re studying music or literature or philosophy or history, you name it, you’ll find that Religious Studies links really well with any other Arts and Humanities discipline.

Click here to download a transcript.


Philip Williamson | Remembrance Day: the British Churches and National Commemoration of the War Dead since 1914

Here’s the third and final keynote from our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference, recorded Feb 21st 2018. Philip Williamson (Durham University) gives a timely presentation entitled Remembrance Day: the British Churches and National Commemoration of the War Dead since 1914.

Most historical work on commemoration emphasises the civil creations from 1919 onwards: Armistice day, the two-minutes silence, the Cenotaph, the War Graves Commission and war memorials, and the British Legion.  Aside from the burial of the Unknown Warrior, the churches are treated almost as adjuncts. Yet British church leaders had been involved with remembrance since 1914, and from 1919 they created their own religious commemoration of Remembrance day, which in 1946 replaced Armistice day as the official occasion for national commemoration.  Against the supposed trends towards secularisation, the churches acquired and retain a leading part in remembrance of the war dead. Yet some tension always existed between the civil and religious commemorations, and what secured the place of the churches in national rituals also brought compromises. This paper will consider how the protestant churches created a new religious commemoration of the war dead; how remembrance contributed to co-operation between leaders of the various British churches; how the character of Remembrance has changed; and how in national commemoration the churches and the state arrived at an alliance of church religion and civil religion.

Religion and its Publics (Part 1)

Jonathan Tuckett of the Religious Studies Project attended our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives conference in February, armed with an iPhone. Drawing from the themes of the conference, he came up with some (difficult) questions to ask the attendees – including our students Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson, and Lecturers Marion Bowman, David Robertson, Paul-Francois Tremlett and Suzanne Newcombe.

Steven Sutcliffe | Explaining the Economy of New Religions

The second keynote from our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference is Steven Sutcliffe (University of Edinburgh). Recorded on Feb 20th 2018, it is entitled “Explaining the Economy of New Spiritualities, with the Help of Bourdieu”. Enjoy!

Magic and Modernity at the Religious Studies Project

Just published over at the Religious Studies Project is a conversation between the Open University’s Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson concerning magical thinking in the modern world. We may think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment society, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber’s rationalisation and James Frazer’s evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic. We then look at examples from Orkney and Cyprus to show these ideas in play. This is an interview that will be of interest to all students of secularity, modernity and belief.

This interview was recorded at our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in Feb 2018, and is based on the “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief” project, part of the Understanding Unbelief programme.

Image 1: Graffiti in grounds of Cypriot church. Photograph taken by Theodoros Kyriakides

Anti-authoritarian unbelief: or, not being told what (not) to believe

Richard Irvine and Theo Kyriakides

Walking through the old town of Nicosia, perched between two olive trees, Theo encountered graffiti of a snarling creature with red eyes in the grounds of a church. Besides the illegible signature of the artist there is no text accompanying the image, but the demonic imagery and its strategic placement – directly facing the north façade of the church – leaves little room for interpretation. Surely this is an act of resistance and opposition to the yellow limestone and hagiographies of the aging building?

Such imagery serves as a background to the everyday discourse of unbelief, especially among the youth of the city. But why would non-believers revel in such apparently occult imagery? This might seem contradictory, given that unbelievers, by their very nature, are thought to tend towards rationalism as a set of logical ideas and assumptions about the world. Yet, as we write in our previous blog post, part of what we need to grasp here are the grounds on which people reject mainstream religious beliefs.

As we progress with our fieldwork, we often find that the association between explicit declarations of unbelief does not necessarily go hand in hand with an emphasis on rational scientific explanation as the only basis for knowledge. On the island of Rousay in Orkney, where Richard is based, abandoned kirks punctuate the landscape, and only a tiny handful of the island’s population of 200 attend the regular service in the church centre set up in the old manse (a manse is where the Kirk Minister lives, or in this case, would once have lived). As Richard was told early on when attempting to find the church, “you’ll find folk are no very religious here”. People who wanted to ‘sing Kumbaya’ were welcome to do so if they wanted, but they shouldn’t for a moment think about leaning on others to join in.

When people explain their unbelief, the starting point is very often the rejection of authority and particularly of religion as a ‘means of control’. A key theme in people’s accounts of why they consider themselves atheists is precisely the idea that religion exists (in the words of one) to “keep people in their place” or (in the words of another) “to tell us what to do as though we don’t ken ourselves”. Indeed, some would go further in locating religion as historically being in the pocket of government interests and rich landowners. (Interestingly, this was precisely the motivation which led to the Disruption of 1843, a schism in the Church of Scotland where those who opposed the interference of landowners’ right to install a minister of his choice in the Kirk seceded from the Established (i.e. the state) Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland – so this kind of dissent actually has a key role in the history of religion in Scotland.)

Likewise, in Cyprus, the formation of the state and the stratification of Cypriot society closely dovetail with the becoming of the Cypriot Christian Orthodox Church as an important and powerful force in the island’s political landscape. The fact that Cyprus’ first president, after becoming a republic in 1960, was a clergyman – Makarios III – who went on to serve three consecutive terms in office, succinctly conveys the close relationship between religion and politics in Cyprus. Makarios’ time as president was tumultuous, and his involvement in the Cypriot problem and the 1974 Turkish invasion is fiercely contested and debated amongst Cypriots even today. 40 or so years later, public opinion surrounding the Church of Cyprus’ spiritual standing is waning as a result of stories such as its involvement in the 2013 Cypriot IMF bailout, or its recent ambition to invest in the tourist industry. “I don’t believe in the Church or what it stands for”, is a reactionary statement which permeates my conversations with Cypriots, and which denotes their distaste against the authority and relevance of religious structures.

Nevertheless, if we take the rejection of authority as the starting point for unbelief, it doesn’t necessarily follow that unbelievers automatically favour modes of thinking that rationalists might deem ‘magical’. In an alley behind the service exit of a bar, much less visible that the creature staring down the church, one finds a stencil of Christ wearing a gasmask. Over the stencil, the artist or someone else wrote “God doesn’t exist.” Below the stencil, a reply to the previous provocation, or perhaps a question to the person witnessing the image, in Greek: Εσύ; – “Do you [exist]?”

Image 2: Stencil of Christ in back alley in Nicosia. Photograph by Theodoros Kyriakides.

Can one exist without belief in something? As the above image suggests, opposition, resistance and unbelief to dominant religious discourse often does not lead to certainty about what one knows about the world. Rather, unbelief opens up an ambiguous grey zone of self-doubt, and a quest as to what one should or shouldn’t believe in. This grey zone is not one of rigid distinction between belief and unbelief, but rather a cognitive and social space where relations between the magical and the rational potentially proliferate.

Dowsing provides an interesting case in point here. In late November a minor controversy bubbled up in the British media after an evolutionary biologist, Sally Le Page, enquired via twitter whether major UK water companies routinely used divination to detect water leaks – only for 10 out of 12 companies to reply, often in a very matter-of-fact way that yes, some of their technicians did use dowsing rods. For some rationalists, this was a cause for uproar – how dare British water companies waste money on such superstitious methods in the 21st century: in the words of Sally Le Page, “I can’t state this enough: there is no scientifically rigorous, doubly blind evidence that divining rods work. Isn’t it a bit silly that big companies are still using magic to do their jobs?”

Yet when Richard discussed this with people in Orkney – even with those who defined themselves as non-believers and who vehemently rejected religious belief as ‘nonsense’ (or far, far worse) – it was generally met with a shrug. Especially in rural areas and outlying islands where farms and households need to drill wells for groundwater supplies, divination is routinely employed to find the find the best place to bore for water. Hence the frequent reply: “But it works.” One important thing to note here is that ‘magic’ is an externally applied term for what is simply considered practical knowledge. “No, I didn’t say anything about it being magic. I just said it works” – though crucially, it only works for those with the ability to do it. Some have it, some don’t. Here, the sense of what is ‘magic’ can be turned on its head, as in the following conversation with a contractor: “You turn on your tap, oh look, there’s water! That’s magic. You don’t even think about where it comes from, do you? But where do you think we get the water from? We have to drill for it. And you think we’re going to stop finding the water the way that does the job just because someone says so who’s probably not got the first clue about where the water comes from and how you get it?”

Here, we see clearly how anti-authoritarianism can also be deployed to reject those authorities who would deem particular practices “magic” and seek to apply abstract rules to everyday life. In this form, unbelief is not about subscribing to a new (rationalist) framework for belief: it’s about not being told what to believe.

Bettina Schmidt | The Contentious Field of Religious Experience

Professor Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales, Trinity St. David) gives her opening keynote presentation from our Contemporary Religion in Historial Perspective conference on the 19th Feb, 2018 – “The Contentious Field of the Study of Religious Experience: The Challenging Influence of Rudolf Otto, Andrew Lang and other Founding Fathers.”

Humour, Concealment and Death Mindfulness in Romanian Funerals

By Maria Nita (University of Wales, Trinity St David)

Death in the West vs. Romanian funeral practices

The modern funeral in the West is increasingly a celebration of life, marked by a depletion of ritual. The French historian Philippe Ariès (1974) claimed that in the West a reduction in the ritual associated with death and dying reflected an inability to accept death caused by the progressive growth in the importance of individuality. Thus ‘the death of the other’ – which was expected and accepted in the Middle Ages as a sort of reintegration in the ancestral community – becomes in modern times, according to Ariès, an unbearable occurrence which can no longer be mediated by ritual. In contrast, the Romanian funeral is still heavily dominated by folk customs, despite some studies suggesting a recent decrease in ritual due to various social factors, such as men taking up a more active role in organising funerals, an area largely considered the domain of older women, who act as expert maintainers of these traditions. (Popescu-Simion, 2014) Also in opposition to the Western emphasis on remembering the past by celebrating the life of the deceased, Romanian funerals are defined by a focused attention on the present, on the moment by moment developments of these rites and also, by an intense relational exchange with the dead body itself. I would like to explore here this engagement with the dead body as a sort of ‘death mindfulness’, leading to an identity transition of the deceased.

Mortu’ as a transitional state in Romanian funeral customs

In Romanian funeral customs, ‘the deceased’ is cautiously talked about as mortu’, a Latin-derived word also meaning ‘the dead body’. ‘Mort’ is, of course, the root word of many English words in this connotative field, such as mortuary, mortality or mortify. Family and friends, all dressed in black, sitting around a traditionally open casket coffin for a three day wake will adopt various attitudes towards mortu’ – from wailing at the head of the coffin, when overcome by grief, to quiet and even jolly conversations, whilst reminding each other to observe all the relevant customs. The customs range from smoky ‘ablutions’ of the body, circling the coffin with frankincense three times a day, to protecting oneself from mortu’ and its potentially dangerous, contaminative and unstipulated rapport with the living: ‘you mustn’t turn your back on mortu’ and if you do, find a small speckle on your clothes and put it on the coffin’, ‘we mustn’t let the candles burn out’, ‘you must put a black scarf on top of the main entrance’, and so on. This could be interpreted as a kind of funeral mindfulness – a practice that focusses one’s attention on the present moment. Towards the end of this process, as the body is taken out of the home or chapel and ‘sent on its last journey’, women rush to cover it with flowers and sometimes jewellery, or even makeup, giving it a puppet-like appearance. The transition is now complete and the frequent relational exchanges of the last few days come to an end.

Humour, death and hidden identities

The ambivalent nature of these interactions seems to have, to some extent, a historical basis. Marina Cap-Bun (2012) shows that in Romanian culture we can identify two concomitant attitudes towards mortality: a pious reverence and abstract idealisation of ‘the departed’ – which Cap-Bun claims to be a later Roman influence, and an older indigenous attitude marked by an irreverent and humorous attitude towards death. This latter is embodied by the Merry Săpânța Cemetery in Romania, which, as the name suggests, abounds in funny and rude portrayals of the deceased. This attitude is also present in old funeral games in which mortu’ was the subject of concealment and trickery; in one extreme example the body was tied up with ropes and used as a puppet to startle unassuming visitors. Like with some shamanic practices dealing with disease, illness and death – laughter and mockery seem to become a gate for plural meanings through which a change or transition of identity is mediated. These polysemic funeral customs are also a constant reminder that one is engaging with mortu’, a transitory and ambivalent ‘being’, in a cocoon-like state.  By focussing the attention on the dead body and the present time Romanian funeral rites and customs appear to provide a death mindfulness practice that seems largely forgotten or absent in the West.

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